Recently, The Economist took an interest in Arab autocracy, titling a leader on the subject “Thank You and Goodbye.” The premise for this statement was that the leaders of Egypt and Saudi Arabia were getting old, therefore change is coming to both countries “for good or ill.” Change is indeed coming, but the rule in the Arab world has tended to be that the more things change, the more things remain the same.
The tenor of the leader was interesting, if for the wrong reasons. After listing the advantages and disadvantages of the policies of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, the magazine carried its argument into a minefield of “ought to.” It advised that the regimes in both countries ought to do this and ought to do that, without really explaining why they would want to do so, given that they have spent decades avoiding the path of rule of law, democratic elections, human rights, and so on.
What positive developments there were during their respective rules came on relatively non-political fronts. Mubarak has managed to bring in investment, causing the Egyptian economy to grow quite rapidly of late. King Abdullah has sought to loosen the reins of the Saudi system by expanding education and opening up avenues for internal dialogue. However, as the framers of the Barcelona Euro-Mediterranean process learned years ago, against their initial hopes, Arab regimes’ economic and social liberalizations have not generated much in the way of political openness.
One reason for this is that the business community in the Arab world has tended to avoid rocking the political boat. Prominent businesses or businessmen often have established close ties with regimes (when they are not actually also regime figures), and therefore see few advantages in challenging a profitable status quo. Income disparities in the region also tend to be great, while higher education is of relatively low quality, making it even more difficult for a middle class to emerge and challenge the order in place.
That conundrum is one reason why even usually sharp observers, not least The Economist, are obliged to resort to the circular “ought” formulation – condemned to repeat, with little expectation of a response, what the Arab world needs by way of amelioration, without which reform would be impossible.
But this circular argument also leads to a paradox, one related to revolutionary change: Arab regimes are bad, but they are often better than their likely alternatives, namely militant Islamists who would impose far worse governance systems than the ones we have today. However, for these Islamist oppositions to be marginalized, Arab regimes need to open their systems up politically and economically, to reduce the popular discontent that allows the Islamists to thrive. Yet here is where things goes sour: If regimes become more tolerant, this could be exploited by the Islamists to expand their power, and many have actually done so quite successfully at the ballot box, as in Algeria, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon and even Egypt. Where does this paradox lead?
Greater acceptance in the West for Arab regimes that abuse their societies, since this keeps Islamists at bay; and a higher likelihood of revolutionary change, because if a regime falters — as happened in Iran in 1979 — the Islamists, having no alternatives, will embrace violent and absolute transformation.
In other words, if Arab regimes untighten their fists, stability may suffer, and if they keep the fist tightened stability may eventually suffer too, in a dramatic way. So the West, particularly the United States, which provides many Arab regimes with vital financial and economic aid, is at a loss about what to do. That’s why the Western states also have a package of ‘oughts’ in hand, though few of them are ever adopted that could threaten the regimes implementing them.
Here is an irony: standing against those lamenting Western “neo-imperialism” in the Middle East is a reality of harsh Arab sovereignty. It is a sovereignty based on instilling the fear in the hearts of the outside world, the West in particular, that tinkering with the machine of the dictators may have terrible consequences. So Arab regimes everywhere remain free because their people are kept in chains.